With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Blue Jays squad each day this week. Today's topic: What's the difference?TORONTO -- Three big pieces from the American League Championship Series roster are gone, but expectations remain the same for a Blue
With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Blue Jays squad each day this week. Today's topic: What's the difference?
TORONTO -- Three big pieces from the American League Championship Series roster are gone, but expectations remain the same for a Blue Jays team that is coming off back-to-back appearances in the postseason. Newcomers Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce and J.P. Howell have arrived, but the success -- or failure -- of this 2017 squad will run a lot deeper than that.
Longtime slugger Edwin Encarnacion, key setup man Brett Cecil and outfielder Michael Saunders are among those who have left town. From the Blue Jays' perspective, the answer as to what the difference is for this year's club over last is "a lot," but when it comes to the actual results, the hope is that the answer will be "not much."
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Morales faces the daunting task of having to replace one of the all-time franchise leaders, but it's not like he's going to be overwhelmed by the pressure. He's been around for 10 years and is coming off a strong season of his own, having hit 30 homers and posted a .795 OPS over 154 games for Kansas City. Toronto hopes a move to the more hitter-friendly ballparks of the AL East will increase those numbers, but the reality is Morales likely won't be able to replace Encarnacion -- who has been one of the most reliable sluggers in the game since 2011 and is coming off a year in which he hit 42 homers, with an AL-leading 127 RBIs and an .886 OPS -- all on his own.
The Blue Jays' best hope to either match, or surpass, last year's offensive numbers likely will rest in the hands of the players who were here last season. A bounce-back season from Jose Bautista a full year from Devon TravisTroy Tulowitzki finding himself early in the season instead of in late May, a more rested Russell Martin leading to more consistent results at the plate -- those are the types of things that are going to dictate whether this team lives up to the hype.
Blue Jays pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin, Fla., on Feb. 14, with the first workout the next day. The first full-squad workout will be Feb. 18.
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Despite its reputation, Toronto really wasn't the offensive powerhouse it was expected to be a year ago. The Blue Jays finished fifth in the AL with 759 runs scored, thanks to an AL-worst 100 runs in September. There were too many strikeouts and the club ranked ninth with a .747 OPS against left-handed pitching. The presence of Pearce and Melvin Upton Jr. over a full season should improve the second problem, but the rest remains to be seen.
On the pitching side, the big difference from a year ago surrounds expectations. The rotation was supposed to be a weakness but instead became the club's biggest strength with a staff that finished first in the AL with a 3.64 ERA, 995 1/3 innings and a 1.22 WHIP. The core remains intact for another year and any dropoff might be offset by a full season of Francisco Liriano as the club's fifth starter instead of R.A. Dickey.
In theory, the bullpen should be in line for a dropoff without Cecil and Joaquin Benoit, but relief was this team's Achilles' heel during the first half of last season. This current group, even after the recent additions of Howell and Joe Smith, might not be as good as the one that finished 2016, but it should be a lot better than the one that started the year, and that might buy some time before additions need to be made.
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.